As someone who just started interning for Interfaith Alliance, I’ve had to explain the specifics of my job and the organization to a plethora of people recently. Most are interested, even intrigued about the topic and to my delight, I often engage in a long and deep conversation about the intersection of politics and religion, and the effort to protect the boundaries between them while allowing both to thrive independently. However, to my dismay, more than once, I’ve been accused of being a part of the fringes of society who have it within their aim to dissolve religion from America. After recovering from the shock of being accused of such a thing, I often find myself fighting an uphill battle.
In one conversation, I was even told that organizations such as Interfaith Alliance are hypocrites, in the sense that by separating religion and government, we were promoting atheism. Certainly, there is nothing wrong with being an atheist, and Interfaith Alliance seeks to protect those who choose no religious tradition too, but it was a challenge for me to comprehend the basis for this accusation. It was at this point that I discovered the real emotional fear (and misconception) behind this argument: that by fighting to protect the boundaries between religion and government, groups such as my own, were actually attempting to dissuade the American people from religion.
After coming to terms with the basis for these accusations, I was able to understand the context of the argument. For a person of faith who does not necessarily understand that there are still battles to be fought to protect religious freedom, it might seem unsettling to see people of faith working to create appropriate boundaries between religion and government. Add to that the polling expressing that a growing number of Americans who do not identify with any religion.
However, groups such as the Interfaith Alliance do not oppose religion, but are in fact supported by many people who embrace it. In fact, there is a broad spectrum of religious leaders who spend their lives protecting these boundaries in large part because of their religious faith, knowing that doing so is best for both government and religion. If you go back and look at the people who founded Interfatih Alliance, it included leaders like the then general secretary of the National Council of Churches Rev. Dr. Joan Brown Campbell, Catholic Bishop Francis Murphy, and past president of the American Jewish Congress Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg. And of course State of Belief is hosted by Interfaith Alliance president Rev. Welton Gaddy, himself a Baptist minister.
One can also look to people like Rabbi David Saperstein of the Religious Action Center of the Union for Reform Judaism, Rev. Brent Walker of the Baptist Joint Committee and Rev. Barry Lynn of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. All of these people leaders in the fight to protect these boundaries.
In order for religion to flourish, it is important that the government remains a separate entity. And it goes conversely as well. As Rev. Gaddy reminds political candidates during election seasons, religion should not be used as a political tool. By fighting to protect the boundary between religion and politics, we are not attempting to demonize religion, but instead trying to protect the integrity of the two. What’s more, as a person of faith myself, it is simply unsettling to imagine a country where government might mandate constraints on my beliefs.
For more on the often forgotten areas of the battle to keep the boundary between church and state intact, and on the common misconceptions of the relationship between atheism and religious Americans, check out these discussions with Joel Engardio and Nica Lalli on State of Belief. (Please note, these are extended versions of the interviews originally broadcast nationwide.)